Tale of two governors

by YES! Staff

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” telling the nation in his 1964 inauguration: “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to replace their despair with opportunity.”

The initiative gave us Head Start, Upward Bound and adult basic education, food stamps, the college work-study program and minimum wage laws.

There was a template for Johnson to follow. It was the North Carolina Fund, an anti-poverty initiative launched by Gov. Terry Sanford the previous year.

To those who say the war on poverty has failed, the numbers tell a different story: 40.6 percent of North Carolinians lived below the federal poverty rate in 1959. That percentage would be cut in half over the course of the 1960s and then gradually whittled down further over the succeeding decades  until it reached a historic low of 12.3 percent in 1999. But since then, the ranks of the poor in this state have been steadily creeping back up, reaching 18 percent in 2012.


What a difference a half-century makes in the life of a state.

In the early 1960s, North Carolina was considered a beacon of progress in the South, not only on economic issues but also on matters of race. In retort to Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s “Segregation now… segregation tomorrow… segregation forever” speech, Gov. Sanford said in January 1963 that it was time to “quit unfair discrimination and to give the Negro a full chance to earn a decent living for his family and to contribute to the higher standards for himself and all men.”

Today, we have a governor that is ranked by Nate Silver — writing last spring as a columnist for The New York Times — as the ninth most conservative of the nation’s Republican governors — to the right of Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, among others. Like many Republican governors, North Carolina’s Pat McCrory has rejected Medicaid expansion to provide health coverage to low-income adults. As a result, 318,710 North Carolinians who would otherwise have insurance as of Jan. 1 are still not covered.

The only three Southern states that accepted Medicaid expansion are Kentucky, Arkansas and West Virginia — none exactly known to be trailblazers.

The federal government is covering 100 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion this year, and its contribution will be gradually phased down to 90 percent by 2020. All of us have already paid for this benefit through our federal income tax contributions.

As Gov. McCrory seeks to stake out more moderate ground in the new year, he must reconsider his stance on Medicaid expansion. No one will accuse him of being as visionary and courageous as Terry Sanford was in 1963. But they might say that Pat McCrory is the kind of pragmatic, common-sense Republican we thought we had elected in 2012. !

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